Anglophone Problem: The Cost of Marginalization
If you need peace, then you must practice justice, if not yours will be the kingdom of trouble and instability. This aptly applies to Cameroon where the Anglophone problem has shattered the country’s image as an oasis of peace in a desert of chaos. Over the last six months, Cameroon has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The English-speaking part of the country has been dealing with marginalization for more than five decades and they want this to stop. All attempts by the English-speaking minority to draw the political elite’s attention to this worrying situation has always met with tricks and intimidation. Over the years, the Yaoundé government has succeeded to manufacture its own Anglophone leaders and this Anglophone political elite has always had its work cut out for it – sedate its people with vain promises, food and drinks so as to keep them in check. The elite has been very effective, using all means, including unfulfilled promises and, where necessary, employ threats of imprisonment or death for those who dare speak out about the pain and suffering marginalization is inflicting on the peace-loving people of West Cameroon.
But after fifty-six years, West Cameroonians feel it is time to break the chains of silence and face a monster that has been spreading death and destruction in a region that holds more than 60% of the country’s wealth. Cameroon’s oil and gold fields are lodged in the country’s south-west region, precisely in Ndian division, where poverty; that which dehumanizes and robs people of their dignity, has taken root. While the country’s refinery may be located in Limbe, Anglophone Cameroon’s coastal city, the oil fields are in the Rio Del Rey estuary in Ndian Division, while localities around Mbonge in the same division are home to large gold deposits. Manyu Division, which is also in the south-west region, is blessed with huge and dense equatorial forests that have been hiding some of the finest timber on the continent, but the people of this region have been sorry spectators of the destruction that is taking place in their forests, as this ageless timber makes its way to East Cameroon.
Oil experts hold that Manyu Division could be sitting on huge oil deposits and there are efforts underway to find out if this region with some of the finest minds in the country could be hiding wealth that can transform the entire country if equitably shared. The region’s sub-soil is throwing up riches that only go to enrich others while the locals watch helplessly from a distance as others feed fat from their manna. It is not in error that many south-westerners have been calling for Canadian-style federalism that will ensure that the government sets up an equalization fund to hold all revenues from natural resources. These revenues will be shared equitably among the different regions of the country for development purposes as practiced by successive Canadian governments which have generated wealth for their people and made Canada the envy of the world. Canada’s Alberta oil sands have brought trillions of dollars to the country’s coffers and the prudent management of the country has brought free education and health care to all the citizens of this great nation. Anglophones are looking forward to the day Canadian federalism will become a reality in their own country. It will be a welcome relief as they will no longer be ruled by French-speaking administrative officers and be taught by Francophone teachers whose knowledge of English is, at best, rudimentary.
However, the rich sub-soil alone did not trigger the current confrontation between the government and the Anglophone minority that is determined to put an end to five decades of contempt and disrespect. Anglophone lawyers who triggered the strike have been vocal about their fate. The government’s error of judgment stemming from transferring Francophone magistrates and judges to Anglophone courts has, on many occasions, led to a clear travesty of justice, with many innocent Anglophones serving long jail terms just because the judges cannot understand English. It has never been the government’s policy to appoint interpreters in court as practiced in Canada, a country that has the same official languages as Cameroon and similar problems. While many Anglophones can speak English and French, their knowledge of legal jargons leaves much to be desired and this has been the root cause of the bitterness against a government they claim is not people-centered.
The frustrations also stem from the fact that Anglophones have, for a very long time, been excluded, either by error or by design, from the School of Magistracy and Administration (ENAM), the institution that trains administrative officers and magistrates, for more than five decades. The military brass is purely francophone and the cabinet which comprises thirty-nine ministers only has one Anglophone minister. Anglophones believe that right from the beginning of this “lopsided relationship”, they have always been considered as the inferior party, with Francophones being the “primus inter peres”. Many Anglophones clearly say they are sick and tired of playing second fiddle to Francophones whose perspective of life is very much driven by short-term thinking and egoism. Abnegation, according to many Anglophones, is a foreign concept to Francophone Cameroonians who, Anglophones claim, have played a key role in bringing the economy of this once prosperous nation to its knees. Anglophones argue that Francophones are naturally submissive, but quietly dictatorial, and would not question anything for fear of acting against constituted authority. They also contend that they are more participatory in their approach to life and their education pushes them into questioning everything except the existence of God. The Anglophone approach is completely at variance with Francophone thinking which has, over the last fifty years, brought a lot of pain and suffering to Anglophones who voluntarily opted to be part of a marriage they thought was predicated on justice, trust and love of fatherland.
Five decades after the UN-staged reunification, the frustrations of the English-speaking minority have boiled over and Anglophones are seeking a way out of this relationship. The strikes that started in October 2016 were aimed at drawing the government’s attention to the angst that has been inhabiting the Anglophone mind. But faithful to its intimidation strategy, the government dispatched its armed forces – known today by Anglophones as “Harm Forces” due to their killing and maiming of innocent civilians, to quash the strikes and send home a strong message to all those who thought they could change the status quo. The military action succeeded, unfortunately, not to intimidate Anglophones, but to radicalize the already frustrated Anglophones who are determined to put an end to the status quo ante, something that is actually coming to pass as the government is bending over backwards to appease Anglophones through a series of measures that some hold are coming too late. Anglophones hold that their call for federalism has been upgraded to the restoration of statehood and discussing federalism is like solving the wrong problem. Today, the country is divided along linguistic lines and the consequences of this conflict go well beyond what many observers had predicted.
When Cameroon’s English-speaking minority decided to challenge the government, many around the world thought the flaring of tempers would not last for more than a week. To many, it was an exercise in failure as the country’s government is noted for its uncanny ways of eradicating dissent and opposition. Intimidation laced with money has always been the government’s method of choice and this has always worked like a charm, especially among Francophones who, many Anglophones consider to be gullible and malleable. Today, the government is at its wit’s end as Anglophones have continued to resist all attempts by the government to break the back of a revolt that has been largely peaceful and without clear leaders. The country has been split and Anglophones are no longer as patriotic as they used to be. Even the Nations Cup could not unite this country whose love for football used to be unquestionable. The patriotism deficit among Anglophones is one poison that is gradually destroying many government officials and they fear that if much is not done to check this unfortunate trend, future generations will continue to question the unity and indivisibility of this country that was designed to be a model on the continent.
This patriotism deficit has been made all the more worse by the disconnection of the Internet in West Cameroon because of the strikes. Many Anglophones hold that this is testimony to the government’s determination to roll them back into the dark ages. They claim that it is their constitutional right to express their frustration with a political system that has been preying on its own citizens. They point to the backwardness of the Anglophone region as proof of the marginalization they have been complaining about. They also hold that strikes organized by Francophone medical staff and teachers in recent weeks had not attracted the type of brutality that had been unleashed on Anglophones. They contend that Anglophone lives do not matter to the government as many Anglophones have been killed and others arrested and taken to Yaoundé without any charges laid against them. This has made the divide a lot trickier than the government had thought.
Today, schools are still closed in both Anglophone regions of the country and it is clear that a blank year is staring both the students and government in the face. The government has been beaten hollow in a conflict that is clearly unconventional. Its ability to manufacture leaders for the people has been tested and it has proven to be wanting. Despite calls by the government for students to go back to school, many Anglophone students are refusing to return to school, with many clearly sympathizing with their striking parents who have been victims of a system that has robbed them of their dignity and jailed them in poverty. They argue that if the government really wants things to return to normal, it must release theirs leaders and fellow West Cameroonians, especially Buea University students, who are in jail for no justified reason.
They are also urging the government to create a commission of inquiry to investigate the killings that have radicalized Anglophones. They want the Internet to be restored as it is a great learning tool that will also enable them to conduct research and stay in touch with their families and friends. They argue that the disconnection of the Internet has caused many Anglophones to lose their jobs. Most of the software development firms that were headquartered in Buea, the south-west regional capital, have simply relocated and this has killed Silicon Mountain, the software hub modeled on America’s Silicon Valley.
But of all the consequences of the conflict that will not go away anytime soon is the destruction that it has wreaked on the economy. Cameroon’s economy has been in a free fall for many decades. Poor management and corruption have pushed this once prosperous economy to the brink. With Cameroon considered today as a fragile country, many investors, especially rich members of the Cameroon Diaspora, hold that it will be too much of a risk to invest in a country where civil liberties are overtly violated and dissent openly crushed. Many investors have faith in the country’s bilingual nature and the effectiveness of its human resources, but they have doubts about the country’s future stability. The Anglophone problem is just one of the many issues facing the government and it is clearly the tip of the iceberg.
Though Francophones have all along been docile and indifferent to the sorry plight of the Anglophone minority, their grumbling has in recent times become loud and clear, and this is causing government officials to lose sleep. The Anglophone virus is gradually spreading and Francophones seem to be finding their voices. Many Francophones are poor and the unemployment rate among them is so high that their frustration could be clearly seen on their faces. High unemployment, poor healthcare, lack of proper infrastructure, scandals in FECAFOOT (FECAFOOD as Anglophones call it) and corruption in the civil service are gradually converging to produce the perfect storm that may be very hard to stem. If the country’s government wants to avert a future political catastrophe, it must change the way it does business. Years of frustration are gradually pushing the Francophone majority, considered by Anglophones as the “junk majority”, into departing from its traditional way of thinking. This implies calling the management ability of their leaders into question and holding them accountable.
The cost of many years of marginalization is turning out to be very high. Cameroonians have become very unpatriotic, their faith in their systems and government has been diluted by corruption, unemployment and mismanagement. Anglophones have challenged the system and they have proven that they are capable of engineering change in a country that was once thought to be unchangeable. Cabinet ministers have been cut down to normal human proportions and the ever-increasing impact of the crisis is causing many talented and educated Cameroonians to leave the country. Many Anglophones hold that their future lies somewhere else and this has triggered a new wave of brain drain that will surely hurt the country’s economy. Those who are abroad have decided to settle wherever they are, as they are scared of being arrested for their participation in the Anglophone rebellion that has left many parts of West Cameroon without police and administrative officers.
If this conflict and its impact have to be checked, the government has to change its tactics. It must understand that dialogue, indeed genuine dialogue, is an idea whose time has come. It must learn how to listen to the people. It must understand that for the country to be truly united and indivisible, it must come up with participatory approaches that will enable every Cameroon to take ownership of any and every decision that the government takes. It must stop the arbitrary arrests and must also restore the Internet. The government must also understand that the Anglophone problem is simply the tip of the iceberg and its failure to find peaceful and lasting solutions might bring the entire iceberg to the surface.
Cameroon is a key player in the Central African sub-region. It is considered as the engine of the sub-region and any problem that destabilizes Cameroon will automatically create ripple effects that will reach the other fragile countries that surround it. If the sub-region has to be spared another major man-made catastrophe, then wisdom must prevail in Cameroon. Anglophone leaders, the real leaders, most of whom are in jail, must be released and brought to the negotiating table so that together with the government, a new future can be designed for the country.
The cost of conflict is always high and conflict does not benefit anybody. The government has to play its part and it must start listening to its citizens. It must stop muzzling up its citizens so that new and innovative ideas can flourish in the country. No nation has ever attained its full development potential without its citizens being able to express their minds. If Cameroon has to check the cost of this conflict, government authorities must embrace new ways. They must acknowledge that old ways have failed. The government must also understand that those who make peaceful change impossible, only make violent change inevitable. The world is watching and anything short of a peaceful resolution will be unwelcome.
About the Author: The author of this piece has served as the executive director of the Global Think-Tank for Africa, a Canada-based public relations outfit that provides image-related advice to African governments. He has published extensively on Cameroon’s political and economic development, especially in the early 90s when the wind of change was blowing across the continent. He has also served as a translator, technical writer, journalist and editor for several international organizations and corporations across the globe. He studied communication at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and technical writing in George Brown College, Toronto, Canada. He is also a trained translator and holds a Ph.D